Thursday, May 16, 2013

Are People Even Aware When They're Being Sentencious?

Sometimes I wonder if people have any awareness of what they're writing. Brad Delong has a great takedown of Michael Kinsley's article "Paul Krugman's Misguided Moral Crusade Against Austerity."

What I thought was worth going just a bit further into was the bit at the end.

Austerians don’t get off on other people’s suffering. They, for the most part, honestly believe that theirs is the quickest way through the suffering. They may be right or they may be wrong. When Krugman says he’s only worried about “premature” fiscal discipline, it becomes largely a question of emphasis anyway. But the austerians deserve credit: They at least are talking about the spinach, while the Krugmanites are only talking about dessert.

Is Kinsley aware that spinach/desert is exactly the kind of attitude that Krugman is criticizing? It's like a medieval doctor explaining that the pain of disease and bloodletting are necessary for the humors to purge themselves. Or, even worse, like medieval flagellants trying to use self-harm to ward off the Black Death.

This just isn't analysis, there's no reason to think solving a real problem should be unpleasant; the unpleasantness or pleasantness of a solution is entirely irrelevant to its efficacy. This is part of Krugman's point, there's simply no evidence that "the problem is the great, deluded middle class—subsidized by government and coddled by politicians." People want to believe this without any evidence because it fits in well with a morality play. I don't think this means people enjoy the suffering of others, it just means they are using a cognitive shortcut in looking at the world through a moral lens rather than trying to observe the world as it is. It gets in the way of rational analysis to talk of spinach vs dessert.

Given the close juxtaposition of the ideas I am left wondering if Michael Kinsley is even aware of his moralizing or if he has so internalized it that he is honestly mistaking it for insightful analysis? This would explain a lot of our problems. People have so internalized these moral ideas that they are just unable to recognize that they are repeating trite moralisms rather than analysis. He goes into this even further when he tells a story of Volcker and stagflation* that has to do with the moral story told by Ronald Reagan, of small government, entrepreneurship, and individual effort, rather than the actual history of expanding the government's balance sheet during this time. Kinsley appears completely unable to separate the moral story which justifies the policy and social order from the actual actions taken.**

Kinsley also asks, "What’s in all this for the austerians?"

The answer is simple, confirmation of their moral view. The feeling that all is right with this world, that the wealthy, who are doing quite well, deserve the fruits of their labors and that the poor and downtrodden deserve their lot. If stimulus is successful, if the government can upset the moral order of award by merit, this upsets this pleasant equilibrium. If we're not in fact awarded based on merit and effort, but instead have many of our successes and failures determined by institutional factors subject to democratic control, a lot of the mythology of corporate America will be upset. If the elite aren't really all that, if giving dessert to the masses would really be successful, a lot of elitists will have to confront their role as parasites rather than leaders.

And we can't have that. So let the pain continue so that we don't have to look at our society and its moral order any more closely than we have to.

*This story always reminds me of how so many talk about the War on Poverty as something we tried and lost. The real story is that Johnson engaged in a great deal of rhetoric about poverty, and initiated a few great programs, but did very little to increase aggregate social transfers (largely because he didn't think he could pass them). Countries that did increase aggregate social transfers did see poverty of the extreme kind found in the US largely eliminated. Yet, many people remember nothing but the moral rhetoric and never take the next step of actually looking at the numbers, which tells a very different story from the hot air surrounding the issue. But again, the moral story triumphs over the hard facts.

**This was educational in reminding me that it's not only economists that do this. Far too often in economics books on institutions they take the claims made by institutional actors far too seriously without reading the historical or political science literature on actual functioning. How an institution or regime justifies itself often has little relationship to its reality.

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